Tuesday, December 6, 2022 Dec 6, 2022
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The Father, The Son and The Cowboys

He was a wide receiver for the Cowboys, and then he wrote North Dallas Forty. Now he has a 16-year-old son who sees the team and the sport very differently than he did.
By Peter Gent |

’NO OTHER PRO TEAM HAD ever quite like them, at one and the same time so rich, so dazzling, so young-and so tragic. They were the first expansion team to challenge for the championship, and when they lost two years in a row they last dramatically and heroically…But haw glorious to lose, and how poignant to keep the conviction in the hearts of Cowboys fans that their team was the best, as inly time would tell.” –Next Year’s Champions, the Story of the Dallas Cowboys, by Steve Perkins, 1969 MY 16-YEAR-OLD SON, CARTER, HAS been a Cowboys fan for years. His loyalty has spanned all three eras, from Clint Murchison to “Bum” Bright to Jerry Jones. On January 31, 1993, he was euphoric.

But I’m already getting ahead of myself. This story ends with Super Bowl XXVII. Most of it was written over the last 30 years, beginning before my son was born and culminating in recent years as I listened to what my son knew about the Dallas Cowboys and professional football. He was talking about the very place I made my living in the ’60s.

I have tried to convince myself that if the Cowboys make him happy, then I am happy, but really I still struggle with my own memories of the team and try to reconcile them with the Cowboys of today.

I joined the team for the 1964 season, coming to Dallas and the NFL out of Big Ten Basketball at Michigan State. Vietnam was loomirg, and I was trying to figure out how to dodge the draft. I made $ 11.000, arid my rent was $ 180 a month for a furnished one-bedroom. Black players had to drive 15 miles to South Dallas to live. We went 4 and 10, and it was the Cowboys’ last losing season for the next 20 years. By the time I was traded to the New York Giants in 1969, we had been in the playoffs three times, gone twice to the NFL championship game, losing both times to Green Bay on the last play.

I left football in 1969 and worked in the advertising business in Dallas for a couple of years. In 1971,1 began to write my first novel-North Dallas Forty, which would be published in 1973 to critical acclaim and to dismay in the Cowboys’ front office. Over the next 20 years I wrote three more novels, several screenplays, dozens of newspaper and magazine articles and saw my screenplay of North Dallas Forty made into a major motion picture starring Nick Nolte. During those years, I watched from the outside as professional football became a billion-dollar business, with the Super Bowl its showcase event.

That was all a long time ago. Just how long I realized during halftime of Super Bowl XXVII. There was the Lay’s commercial preceding Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” spectacular: Mike Ditka and Howie Long and Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor and the rest making fun of Tom Landry’s bald head to sell potato chips.

I could just picture all their agents arguing about fees and residuals with the guys from PepsiCo.

When 1 played for Tom. I was an account executive for Tracy-Locke advertising and we were handling a new Frito-Lay product called Doritos. Tom didn’t like the idea of off-the-field jobs, let alone TV product endorsements. He said it interfered with concentration.

This was the same man who almost fired me in 1968 for getting Kenny Rogers a sideline photographer’s pass. He couldn’t believe this guy in a beard and hip huggers and love beads had somehow gotten onto the Cotton Bowl sidelines and into our locker room. Now, they would pee on an electric fence to get Kenny to sing the national anthem.

Sitting there watching Tom and Michael. it suddenly became clear to me how much time has passed. But some things haven’t changed: I am a father who refuses to allow his son to play football despite his deep desire and obvious talent as a receiver-it is a price that is just not worth the privilege. Carter accepts and respects my decision, though he does not like it.

As a loyal Dallas Cowboys fan, he can recite the stats on everybody from Troy Aikman to…well, you’ll have to ask him.

THE ONLY TIME I HAVE BEEN in Texas Stadium, for a 1982 game, I took Carter with me. He was 6 years old. Before going to the stadium we stopped to pick up our tickets at the Cowboys’ towers on Central Expressway. Clint Murchi-son Jr. was there-he was already desperately ill. He could barely speak and had hired ex-Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer to assist him with standing and walking.

I stood holding Carter in my arms, and it was an awkward moment. Then Clint slowly lifted his cane and smilingly pointed at the front of Carter’s pullover shirt. Most of what Clint said was unintelligible, but he kept pointing with his cane and trying to talk. Finally, I could make out the word cowboy. 1 looked at Carter’s shirt where the outline of a cowboy on a bucking horse was stitched over his heart. “Cowboy,” Clint said again and smiled slightly. He nodded to Billy Kilmer, smiled again at Carter and moved toward the elevator. It was the last time I saw Clint Murchison Jr.

Now, the Cowboys are made up of kids not much older than my son, and Carter has predicted the ’90s will be the Cowboys” decade.

“Dallas will jam up the running lanes and shut down Thurman Thomas,” Carter tells me early in the week before the Super Bowl. “They’ll kill the Bills. I can’t see how they’re only a 7-point favorite.”

“Carter,” I ask, “do you like Jimmy Johnson?”

He has turned on MTV and is watching the Naughty By Nature video “Hip-Hop Hooray.”

“He gets on my nerves but he’s a good coach.” Carter’s eyes never leave the television. He seems to be able to listen to my question and understand the rap lyrics.

“Johnson didn’t just try and patch up for the next year,” Carter continues. He has switched to Black Entertainment Television and Ice Cube is rapping “Givin’ Up The Nappy Dug Out.”

“He made trades for draft choices and built a team that’ll last for years,” Carter says. My son knew who Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin were before they joined the Cowboys. I hadn’t even known who Jimmy Johnson was until he got to Dallas.

“Well, that’s what Landry did,” 1 point out. “Until John Murchison died and Clint got sick and had to sell to Bum Bright. The club came apart from the top. Tex and Tom couldn’t keep their areas of responsibility defined.”

Carter glances sideways at me and frowns. He’s wondering the same thing I am: What the hell am I doing defending Tom Landry?

“They passed up Tony Mandarich for Troy Aikman.” Carter turns back to Ice Cube and “The Nappy Dug Out.”

“Didn’t Landry and [Tex] Schramm draft Aikman?” I ask halfheartedly.

“No,” he shakes his head. “They got Irvin but not Aikman. Johnson also drafted Kevin Smith and traded for Thomas Everett at the defensive halfbacks. Watch what they do to Buffalo. They will shut off their outside receivers.”

I am on shaky ground. I don’t know anything at all about Smith and Everett.

“Kevin Smith covered Jerry Rice last week.” He has his eyes on the TV. “Except for one play and they called that one back.

“I thought you didn’t like Landry and Schramm.” Carter doesn’t take his eyes off the screen, which is filled with oversized behinds, shaking like wet dogs.

“They had a good system. They won for 20 years.” 1 am quickly backpedaling. “I just didn’t like the way they treated peo-ple.”

“Well. 1 don’t know how Johnson treats people.” Carter glances at me as two fat VJs start prancing around and talking at us. They dress like 1 did on my TV show in 1967. While everyone else wore suits and talked football, I wore blue jeans and did outrageous morality plays with defensive tackle Willie Townes and Craig Morton’s sheepdog. This went on for five minutes a night, five nights a week on Channel 4. The sponsors quickly dropped out, the station threatened firing and Schramm threatened fines. “The Pete Gent Show” was not renewed.

“Do you think they’ll go to the Super Bowl five times like the Cowboys of the ’70s did?” Why am I on Landry’s side again?

“They may not go five times, but they’ll win all they go to.” Carter flips back to MTV. “They’ll win at least three.”

He looks at me. “It’s a lot different now. I guess.” I nod. “Back when 1 was playing…”

Carter frowns at me. “You better have a story I haven’t heard or I’m going to my room.”

MARY LEVY, HEAD COACH of the Buffalo Bills, will tell you that the greatest football player he ever coached was Don Perkins at New Mexico in the late ’50s.

I played with Don Perkins in Dallas in the ’60s, and he was the greatest football player I ever saw. Don was a small back- 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds. He was at top speed by his second step and hit like a freight train. When he retired in 1968 he was the fifth all-time rusher in the NFL.

But Don Perkins never played in a Super Bowl. We missed going to the first two by a total of 3 yards and about 15 seconds. The Packers went instead and we became the team that couldn’t win the big game.

Back in 1966, when the NFL had two divisions, 14 teams and 560 players, we were playing Cleveland in the Cotton Bowl for the lead in the old Eastern Division.

We were) finally playing to sold-out crowds after seven years of struggle. I had been there for the last three.

Don Meredith was quarterback, and Danny Reeves was the halfback to Perkins at fullback. Reeves came back to the huddle after carrying the ball. He was furious.

“Somebody get that gol’ durn Bill Glass,” Reeves said in his angry Georgia drawl. “He’ s piiinchin ’ me.” He was a 21-year-old kid and “pinching” was a three syllable word where he came from.

The huddle turned strangely quiet for a moment. Then Perkins from Waterloo, Iowa, spoke in his deep, mellifluent voice.

“Don’t worry, Dan,” he said, sternly. “Next play I’ll goose him.”

After everybody finished laughing and Danny finished blushing (which he did often), Meredith called the next play and we went on to beat Cleveland.

For all my negative feelings about pro football, I can think of no better example to describe the best of life in the NFL in the ’60s.



“You’re such an idiot.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Carter tells me that Dallas will beat the Bills in the second half. He says they’ll only run Emmitt Smith about 10 times in the first half and then run him down Buffalo’s throat in the second half.

“Smith will get over 100 yards rushing,” he says. “And they’ll beat Buffalo’s no-huddle offense by sacking Jim Kelly and causing a lot of fumbles and interceptions.” Carter tells me that the week before the game. I want my kid to handicap for me.

I am interested in the Bills because Elijah Pitts is the backfield coach and Elijah went with the Packers to that first Super Bowl instead of Perkins and me.

Not that it was much of a game. It wasn’t even called the Super Bowl. The Los Angeles coliseum was half empty, and the crowd was asked to sit opposite the press box so that TV audiences would have the impression that there were lots of people in attendance.

Lombardes Packers beat the hell out of the Kansas City Chiefs. Flanker Max Magee played drunk and caught two TD passes-one of them using only one hand and the side of his head.

The old days. The old NFL, country music and rock ’n’ roll. Willie Nelson and Roger Miller, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. Now it’s rap and hip-hop an Garth Brooks passes as a country singer.

Yet, in 1993, Don Perkins is still the best football player Mary Levy ever coached.

The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

WITH DANNY REEVES NOW in the New York job, I want the Giants to win. I finished out my career with the Giants playing for the Mara family-I can’t stand the Maras-so I’ll pull for them to win games and lose money. It’s the only way I can deal with mis particular dilemma.

Dealing with dilemmas is what a lifetime in sports teaches you. I guess that’s good. Except most of the dilemmas are caused by being in sports in the first place.

I read the other day that Tom Landry has little time for or interest in professional football these days. It’s like that. You’re in, then you’re out. There’s no in-between mat’s very comfortable. Few really adjust, some commit suicide.

Carter and the latest version of the Cowboys have a lot in common. They look at guys like me as really old and not very relevant to the world. And not very bright. After all, I made more money in the offseason in an advertising printing business with Bobby Hayes than I ever made in football. My total salary for five years with the Cowboys is less than single game checks today.

The players are rich, young, immortal. They’ve got free agency, and they’re going to live and play in the NFL forever. They’ll never get old. They’ll never die. They can’t even figure out how guys like me ever got to be 50. You can’t talk to them about pensions and health insurance and how bad you’re gonna feel every morning. That’s not what being young is supposed to be about, anyway.

It’s just that in football you spend your youth so fast.

In football they teach you to leave it on the field. Do your best every day. Don’t give up. No pain, no gain. And, one day, you wake up and realize you did what they told you. You left it all on the field and you’re 29 years old with your life stretching out in front of you like a thousand miles of bad road.

Television has convinced a whole generation that success in sports requires a professional career and a stack of product endorsements. Anything short of a world championship followed by designing your own line of sporting goods means failure.

Carter has a first-year basketball coach out of Indiana who’s a Bobby Knight wannabe. He got two technicals and lost the kids a close game the other night. Trying to tear off his red Bobby Knight sweater to throw it on the floor, he got it caught around his neck, nearly strangling himself.

When I see Bobby Knight throw a fit on television and realize my son is going to have to deal with a high-school coach who thinks mat’s the way to behave, I mourn for high-school sports and the quick, bloody death of so many young dreams.

Carter has already heard this. He doesn’t want to hear it any more. And this year’s version of America’s team doesn’t want to hear from guys like me at all.

After all, Michael Irvin makes about $1.2 million and drives a Mercedes. And Emmitt Smith is gonna get a lot more than Duane Thomas for doing almost exactly what Duane did on the field. OK, Thomas was known for being militant and surly and Smith is a choirboy.

Still, this latest version of the Cowboys sure beats the bejezus out of the Bills, just like Carter said they would. And, I must admit I got some enjoyment out of it. These young kids seem to be having so much fun. So young, so vital, so seemingly unstoppable. The future seems to be theirs for the taking.

CARTER’S FRIENDS, THE FINCH twins, Ben and Eric (Eric is a high-school ail-American wide receiver), are Redskins fans.

So, Carter and the Finch boys were at each other all year long, especially when the Redskins and the Cowboys met. And, if they weren’t in our living room yelling back and forth, they would call each other up after every third or fourth play, every touchdown, field goal, interception, fumble, or quarterback sack and heckle over the phone.

The next generation’s playing out this lunatic antagonism between the Cowboys and the Redskins more than 30 years after it began without the faintest idea how it started. It is a perfect example of the generation gap between my son and me-the old Cowboys and the new Cowboys.

It may come as news to anyone who played for the Cowboys after the mid-’70s and to all the fans, but the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry didn’t start on the field or even between the players. It began between the owners,

Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall hated Clint Murchison Jr. because, to get the Dallas franchise, Murchison lobbed money on Congress to force the Redskins to give up their virtual broadcast monopoly of professional football in the South in 1960.

The battle widened when Murchison bought the copyrights to “Hail to the Redskins” out from under Marshall and used the song as a bargaining chip to force Marshall to drop his opposition to Clint’s bid.

And Murchison didn’t stop with the fight song. He and his Cowboys cronies tried for a decade to foul up the Redskins’ big Christmas halftime show that was highlighted by Santa arriving at mid-field pulled by a dogsled.

They had gotten as far as seeding the field with hundreds of pounds of chicken feed and smuggling a couple hundred chickens into the stadium. The plan was to turn the chickens loose when the dogsled hit the field. The huskies would go after the chickens and that would be the best halftime show ever. A dozen huskies in feeding frenzy, chasing a couple hundred chickens and dragging Santa along behind to boot. It was gonna be beautiful.

The plan was “fowled up” by a puzzled security guard who heard the chickens clucking under the stadium.

Undaunted, these rich Dallas tycoons would get drunk, make prank calls to George Preston Marshall in the middle of the night and cluck into the phone.

Marshall would get his number changed and unlisted.

Murchison would call up J. Edgar Hoover and get the new number and the midnight chicken calls would begin again.

Yep. That’s right. J. Edgar Hoover.

The Cowboys and the Super Bowl have come a long way from that close encounter we had in 1966-67. NFL films will show the Cowboys’ seven TDs over and over in every future pregame show, so the network can recoup their billion-dollar investment in the NFL by selling hundreds of minutes of commercial time at $2 mil-Hon-$3 million a minute.

The franchise was worth $600,000 when the Murchisons bought it, and the Super Bowl was an afterthought of a game designed to pave the way for the NFL-AFL merger that would keep down player salaries. Both have become huge moneymakers and a part of American sports mythology.

It’s probably not healthy to take it all so seriously.

And, right now, in the euphoric afterglow of victory that has to be covering the Metroplex like a constant fog, it would be difficult to find fault with two guys from Arkansas.

But I should try. It’s the least I can do. After all, I did it for Tex and Tom for 20 years.